Proximate Cause - Superseding Cause

Posted Monday, January 09, 2017 by Ed Harper

Proximate Cause - Superseding Cause

WPI 15.05 – “A superseding cause is a new independent cause that breaks the chain of proximate causation between a defendant’s negligence and an injury/event.

…“It is not necessary that the sequence of events or the particular resultant injury/event is foreseeable. It is only necessary that the resultant injury/event fall within the general field of danger which the defendant should reasonably have anticipated.” (emphasis added)

If you find the defendant, in the exercise of ordinary care, could not reasonably have anticipated the latter independent intervening cause then that cause does not supersede defendant’s original negligence and you may find that the defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause of the injury/event.

It is not necessary that the sequence of events where the particular resultant injury/event be foreseeable. It is only necessary that the resultant injury/event fall within the general field of danger which the defendant should reasonably have anticipated.

Therefore, if the original negligence of the defendant is followed by a foreseeable event there is no superseding and interceding cause.

In Rinks v. Bearrs, 83 Wn.App. 334, 921 P.2d 558 (1996) and Christen v. Lee, 113 Wn. 2d 479, 780 P.2d 1307 (1989) the court dealt with foreseeability as an issue and whether the specific incident(s) was within the general field of danger. If the event was foreseeable, then there was potential liability. In Christen, the court held that a criminal assault could be deemed foreseeable if the drinking establishment that furnished intoxicating liquor had some notice of the possibility of harm. Notification arose from prior actions of the person causing the injury either on the specific occasion or on previous occasions.

Furthermore, the question of whether an intervening act was within the general field of danger is determined by analyzing whether the act was so highly extraordinary as explained by the case MacLeod v. Grant County.

In Christen a patron was shot by another patron following an altercation which arose as the patrons were exiting. The injured patron, Mr. Christen sued the China Doll restaurant for serving intoxicating liquor to an obviously intoxicated person, who was the shooter. The suit was deemed unsuccessful as the court determined that the establishment did not have sufficient notice “of the possibility of harm from prior actions of the person causing the injury.”

In Rinks, however, the court determined that a drinking establishment could be liable as the event was foreseeable that someone such as Mr. Rinks could be injured/killed. More specifically, a minor who purchased alcohol from the establishment would share his large amount of beer with another minor who then would drive while intoxicated, which led to the wrongful death of Mr. Rinks.

“Foreseeability is a question of fact to be decided by the jury, but it may be determined as a matter of law where reasonable minds cannot differ.” Rinks, at page 338. The court explained foreseeability is established where the harm is “reasonably perceived as being within the general field of danger covered by the specific duty owed by the defendant”. Here the seller of alcohol, KUI, should have foreseen that a large amount of beer sold illegally to a minor, would be shared with other minors and that intoxicated minors might attempt to drive, injuring persons such as Mr. Rinks. See Rinks, at 339. The Rinks court held the trial court properly found that the injuries were not unforeseeable as a matter of law. Rinks at 339.

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